Sunday, August 14, 2011

Downstairs Drama

Earlier this year I wrote a couple of reviews of Downton Abbey, the new miniseries that follows both the lives of the wealthy family (the upstairs) and their servants (the downstairs). One of the many issues I struggled with, and that I hinted at in my reviews, is the depiction of women and queer/non-heterosexual men.*
The show spent an exorbitant amount of time justifying the economic disadvantages that the three daughters were in. Mary, the eldest, spends the most time complaining about this and trying to manipulate the situation to her advantage, but to no avail. Nothing can apparently be done, as is said by various characters. There was something about this that struck me as entirely false. First, if this is such the case, why not try to show how incredibly unjustified and hurtful for the sisters this is? Second, why does it matter if on this issue one is historically accurate, especially when historical accuracy is thrown out the window any other time it serves the writer's needs?
The show also demonized the two male characters who had sex with men. One of them was a drunk, conniving, mean-spirited and selfish git. The other one of them manipulated a female character. There are so many homophobic depictions of gay people out there, this seemed entirely ridiculous. Just because a piece is set in a historical period does not mean it needs to be written in a regressed fashion.
I have not been terribly impressed with certain other dramas that copy from this basic format (which itself is clearly copied from a much older show, titled Upstairs Downstairs.) I kept finding myself wishing that someone would tell some story about this time period that dealt more honestly with non-dominant views and told a story from a voice or voices of people who our so frequently overlooked, which is why I was overjoyed at seeing news of a new movie called Albert Nobbs, which explores the life of a woman who dresses as a man as a way to beat the economic disadvantages women faced and is attracted to another woman. I realize that this might not be a perfect movie either, but I am hopefully that this will be a more realistic and sympathetic portrayal of someone who is usually either absent or depicted unfairly in media.

*I am unsure what to make of certain male character's sexuality, and in an attempt not to place them in the incorrect category, I have tried simply to indicate that their behavior indicates that they are not heterosexual. Since this was a time of mostly silence around the issue, and the characters themselves do not identify themselves explicitly, I wanted to acknowledge that it would be easy to interpret their behavior in multiple ways.

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